WHITE HOUSE DOWN
Building the Beast
It also fell to Petruccelli, along with Graham Kelly, the film's action vehicle supervisor, to recreate the presidential limousine, affectionately and accurately known as The Beast. This is no mere luxury production car: this is a rolling fortress.
"When I first took this job -- to build three presidential limos -- I thought, 'Yeah, no problem,'" says Kelly. "I thought we'd just take a Cadillac limo and un-stretch it a bit. But then I saw a reference picture of a Secret Service agent standing on the back quarter of the car. He looked like a small guy. And then I realized... he probably wasn't a small guy. He was probably at least six feet tall. And that meant the car was enormous."
"The most surprising thing about this vehicle was the actual size of it," recalls Cyril O'Neil, president of Reel Industries, the company that built the cars. "You look at photographs of the vehicle and you think it's a normal limousine. And we actually entertained the idea of actually building it on an existing limousine. But as you start to look at the dimensions, you start to figure out the actual size of it, and you start to realize that the car is a true anomaly. It's brilliantly designed in that it looks like a limousine, but it is not. On the outside, it is the size of a large truck, and on the inside, because of the armor that it has, it's the size of an SUV. The result was that everything on the vehicle had to be custom built -- there was no starting with something and changing it. We would have to build the Beasts from the ground up."
One of the reasons it was so important to get it right was that Roland Emmerich was determined to shoot practically whenever possible. It seemed there was a never-ending list of tasks that the car would have to pull off. "Every day, Roland would tell me, 'Oh, by the way, there's something else I want it to be able to do,'" and I'd just say, 'Okay, Roland.'"
For the production of White House Down, the filmmakers would need three replicas. And this was a tall order, because, in essence, nothing is known about the car. "When we first took on the project, obviously the first place we went for information was the Secret Service," says O'Neil. "We were told that as interesting as they found our project, they would be unable to provide us with information about the vehicle. They couldn't even provide us wheel base or length. They literally would give us no information about the vehicle."
Of course, some information was available through research. "For many years, General Motors has been the company that has provided the vehicles for the Secret Service and provided the limousine for the President," says O'Neil. "Cadillac has provided the presidential limo for decades. As far as I know, General Motors has been very intimately involved with the design of this vehicle. And it does carry very traditional Cadillac lines."
With that in mind, the way in to the design began with a bit of detective work. "We made the assumption based on photographs that the headlight in the real Beast is a 2009 Cadillac Escalade headlight. That being the case, we took a 2009 Cadillac Escalade headlight and measured it. Knowing that dimension, we were then able to scale a photograph and determine all the other dimensions of the vehicle based on that."
"Once we extrapolated the dimensions from the headlight and were able to put that out on a drawing, we handed those dimensions off to a small team of sculptors. Those sculptors actually took a block of foam that is roughly the size of the vehicle and hand sculpted the shape of this vehicle -- everything you see -- into that foam," explains O'Neil. "Once the foam was done, we made a negative mold of the car, filled the negative mold with gel coat and fiberglass -- and the body comes out as one piece. We put it onto a tube frame that we've built on a stretch Suburban chassis."
"The Beast is a good foot wider than most standard cars, and that's to accommodate the armor in the real car," says Kelly. "So we made ours to look that way. When you open the doors, you can see that we cast the car that deep."
To create the interior of The Beast, one single photograph served as the blueprint for their design. "Nobody knows what the inside looks like," adds O'Neil. "We took the interior design from a single picture that we have that shows an open door of the limousine. From that photograph, we were able to design, on our own, what we think the interior would look like, under the guidance of Kirk Petruccelli, the production designer."
Despite its size and heft, The Beast also had to be a marvel of speed and maneuverability. "From the story requirements, the Beast had to crash through a wall, it had to have the ability to travel in an off road situation, be able to jump down off curbs, and be able to do sliding skids, potentially 180s or 360s as well," states O'Neil. "That was a challenge, because in order to get the correct size of tire to give the car the right look, all the tires actually have to be truck tires on this car. Well, truck tires are very stiff and they are made to not flex at all, and that makes it a little bit more challenging to get the car to do a 180 or a 360. We knew we were going to have to give it ample power and speed to do the spins."
That power came from an LS1 Corvette motor. "We had to make sure the engine was good," says Kelly. "That engine is about 420 horsepower, so it's man enough to handle all of the work it had to do."
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